Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

11 English language requirements at Master’s level

The level of proficiency (or competence) in the use of English required at Master’s level may vary by programme, and you should always check your intended qualification details for specific requirements. However, broadly speaking, if English is not your first language, you will need to provide evidence that your spoken and written command of English is adequate for the programme for which you are applying. This is to ensure that language is not a barrier to your academic progress or social engagement and integration with other students during your studies.

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS-Academic Version) is frequently used to gauge proficiency in the use of Academic English. This system tests performance in written and spoken language skills across four categories: (i) task achievement, (ii) coherence and cohesion, (iii) lexical resource, and (iv) grammatical range and accuracy. The ‘typical’ requirement at Master’s level is to have achieved an overall test score of 6.5 (65%) or higher, and usually not less than a score of 5.5 in any category in this test. The IELTS band descriptors are provided in Table 2, for reference. Table 3 shows a comparison of the IELTS score (equivalent requirements) with other formal English language testing systems commonly accepted by higher education institutions in the UK. However, you should be aware that different courses may require different levels of achievement in specific qualifications, and you should check the requirements for your intended programme.

If English is your native language, or you have demonstrated proficiency by completing your first degree in English, you would normally be expected to be able to operate at a level that is suitable for transition to Master’s study. This would imply that you have ‘effective’ to ‘full’ operational command of the language. If you are uncertain, then do check with your institution.

Full descriptors for writing (tasks 1 and 2) and reading are available on the IELTS website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Table 2 IELTS band descriptors (summary)

Band Descriptor Proficiency
9 Expert user Has full operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.
8 Very good user Has full operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies; misunderstandings occur in unfamiliar situations; handles complex detailed argumentation well.
7 Good user Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations; generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.
6 Competent user Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings; can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.
5 Modest user Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes; should be able to handle basic communication in own field.
4 Limited user Basic competence is limited to familiar situations; has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language.
3 Extremely limited user Conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations; frequent breakdowns in communication occur.
2 Intermittent user No real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs; has great difficulty in understanding spoken and written English.
1 Non-user Essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.
0 Test not attempted No assessable information provided.

Table 3 IELTS equivalent testing system scores for comparison

CEFR Component IELTS-A CPE and CAE PTE-A TOEFL-IBT
C1 Listening 8.0 200 76 26
C1 Reading 8.0 200 76 28
C1 Speaking 8.0 200 76 28
C1 Writing 8.0 200 76 28
C1 Total 8.0 200 76 110
C1 Listening 7.5 191 72 24
C1 Reading 7.5 191 72 26
C1 Speaking 7.5 191 72 27
C1 Writing 7.5 191 72 26
C1 Total 7.5 191 72 103
C1 Listening 7.0 185 67 22
C1 Reading 7.0 185 67 24
C1 Speaking 7.0 185 67 25
C1 Writing 7.0 185 67 24
C1 Total 7.0 185 67 95
B2 Listening 6.5 176 61 21
B2 Reading 6.5 176 61 22
B2 Speaking 6.5 176 61 23
B2 Writing 6.5 176 61 22
B2 Total 6.5 176 61 88
B2 Listening 6.0 169 56 19
B2 Reading 6.0 169 56 20
B2 Speaking 6.0 169 56 22
B2 Writing 6.0 169 56 19
B2 Total 6.0 169 56 80
B2 Listening 5.5 162 51 17
B2 Reading 5.5 162 51 18
B2 Speaking 5.5 162 51 20
B2 Writing 5.5 162 51 17
B2 Total 5.5 162 51 72
Abbreviations: CEFR: Common European Framework of Reference for Languages; IELTS-A: International English Language Testing System – Academic Version; CPE: Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English; CAE: Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English; PTE-A: Pearson Test of English – Academic Version; TOEFL-IBT: Test of English as Foreign Language – Internet-Based Test.
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